This year, the song of the summer debate hasn’t raged in any significant way, but for a subset of young, hip, mostly Black people, Wizkid’s “Essence” was the only contender. “Essence” is the fourth single from the Nigerian superstar’s fourth studio album and second with RCA, October’s Made in Lagos. We sing it to ourselves and each other tenderly, wrapped in the warmth of its tropical R&B. “You don’t need no other body,” coos Tems, the Naija newcomer who opens the track with a gentle love-crazed longing. “Say I wanna leave you in the mornin’/But I need you now,” she admits.
The track got an extra marketing push in April with a vibrant music video, and in July, after all our obsessing, the song broke through on the Hot 100 chart, debuting at No. 82. It’s since climbed to No. 54. “Essence” sits at No. 43 on the RS Top 100 Songs chart, too. These are feats for both Wizkid and Tems that mark a watershed moment for African music in the West. Though he is one of the continent’s hottest performers, “Essence” is Wizkid’s first appearance on U.S. charts as a sole lead artist (he’s appeared before with Drake on “One Dance” and Beyoncé on “Brown Skin Girl”). The song is proof that Afropop acts — long honored in Black immigrant and adjacent communities — can shake the room in the States, in a major way, and on their own terms.
Then Wizkid announced that a Justin Bieber remix was imminent.
Not everyone met the news of a Bieber placement enthusiastically. “IT DIDNT NEED NO OTHER BODY!!!” one person tweeted, to the delight of 30,000 others and counting. With all the organic success of “Essence,” it can feel like this remix caters to a white audience. This has happened before, and it’s happened with Justin Bieber specifically. Let’s journey back to the Before Times: 2017. “Despacito,” a popetón fusion of Latin pop and reggaetón, originally performed by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee, was already a global hit in nearly a dozen Latin American countries and blew up on Latin charts in America. Four months later, Bieber hopped on the remix, at times forgetting the Spanish he performed in, but helping the song shoot to No. 1 and stay there for 16 weeks, a record only surpassed by “Old Town Road.” It was only the third Spanish-language song to do so.
With this in mind, Bieber’s appearance on “Essence” may come off less like the natural progression of an incredibly special song, and more like a grab at even more crossover success with an artist that has not always been sensitive to difference. But por qué no los dos? Some afrobeats connoisseurs remain hopeful that the remix will help bring the genre the global mainstream play and acclaim it warrants. “This is not cultural appropriation,” tweeted Nigerian music journalist Joey Akan. “The intention is clear. Credit was given. Everyone on the record is platformed, celebrated and will make their bread. Our industry continues our march to globalisation, and we win as a collective.”
What’s more, the remix is fire. Bieber’s insertion is seamless, his verse unfurling tenderly after Wizkid’s and Tems’s. “I prayed for this moment/I would be by your side,” chants the notably spiritual singer. He softly introduces a slick new cadence before taking on the chorus, light Pidgin English and all. This, in fact, is the only jarring element of his appearance, him cooing “only you fi hold my body,” with his distinctly western pop trill, but it’s less offensive than it is endearing. African Twitter is going to have a field day bestowing semi-traditional names like Oluwajustin on this Canadian white boy.
With another marketing push and Bieber in tow, the “Essence” remix may become the undisputed anthem of the summer and even the year. It’s just important to remember that young Africans made it possible. The song keeps seasoned afrobeats producers Legendury Beats and P2J’s magical template. The song keeps Wizkid and Tems at the forefront. It’s up to all of us who have embraced “Essence” — who’ve swayed and rocked to it’s sweet rhythm since last fall — to keep Nigerian talent at the center of its story.